She died on a late winter morning, a burning ball of fire, a 23-year-old woman on the way to court in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh, a rape survivor who had filed a case against five of her tormentors. It took her over 40 hours to die in a Delhi hospital, her skin peeled off by 90 per cent burns, her body a mass of raw flesh. A gang of five men, of which two, Shivam and Shubham, had raped the girl, waylaid her, stabbed her and set her on fire. She managed to walk over a kilometre before collapsing to the ground. The same week, four men kidnapped, raped, murdered and burned a young veterinarian in Hyderabad.
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Two brothers were booked for raping a 14-year-old girl in Nagpur. In Ghazipur, the UP police arrested local grocer Jashim Uddin who had raped four children in four consecutive days. Thus they tumble out from the dark album of gender violence, nameless lithographs of violated and murdered women, children and babies whose faces and voices are lost in the endless night of the Indian gender war. Evil walks in broad daylight, no longer afraid of the light of exposure. Eighteen men in Chennai were charged with raping and drugging a 12-year-old girl over seven months in various locations. Earlier in the month, a man was jailed for raping to death a nine-month-old baby girl. India is the most dangerous country for sexual violence against women, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation 2018 survey. The initial response of the UP state police whose responsibility it was to have prevented the rape and the immolation was to duck responsibility. The state’s top cop DGP OP Singh pleaded that the girl had not “approached the police for security”. The men had been released a month ago and were considered a clear danger to her.
Something is seriously wrong with the Indian male.
A group of men in Bihar, which included a local official, tried to rape a mother and daughter in their home and shaved their heads and paraded them through the village for resisting. The National Crime Records Bureau reports that a woman is raped every 15 minutes in India. What is wrong with a system and society that produces and nurtures monsters who rape, gangrape, murder and maim the victims with fire and acid? The contralto of this terrible opera echoed in actor Daniel Shravan’s comment after the Hyderabad rape and murder that women must “cooperate with rapists and carry condoms”. He posted on Facebook: “Girls should not deny sexual desires of men.” In that case, “these types of things will not happen”. Explanations for rape have entered the realm of the darkly surreal; Bihar politician and film director Vinay Bihari held eating chicken and fish responsible for rape. A Khap Panchayat leader believes that fast food and chowmein causes hormonal imbalance. A 13-year-old Bareilly girl was forced by village elders to marry her rapist as the ‘honourable’ thing to do. Madhumita Pandey who interviewed 100 convicted rapists at Delhi’s Tihar Jail over three years for her doctoral thesis at the criminology department of Anglia Ruskin University, UK, speaks about a man who raped a five-year-old girl; he was full of remorse for having “ruined her life” because she is “no longer a virgin, no one would marry her”. He promised to marry her once he is out of jail. Says former DGP of UP, Vikram Singh, “Right from the feeding bottle, a son is treated as ‘kuldeepak’ in society while the daughter is the ‘parayadhan’. She is treated as loose change in her own family.” Even disabled women are not safe: a 14-year-old deaf girl was raped in Pratapgarh on December 9. Says noted sociologist Prof AK Verma, Director, Centre for Study of Society & Politics, Kanpur, “The responsibility of maintaining law and order lies with the government of the day. All the good work done for the welfare of the people stands nullified if law and order situation is not good.”
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What has failed in the establishment where responsible officials look for blame in other quarters, even in the victim’s conduct, to save their skin?
“Most of the boys are raised with a sense of privilege. This perpetuates gender discrimination. Added to this, lack of education, past history of victimisation, gender norms, psychological factors, substance abuse, consuming violent content online, violence within family and exposure to violent acts outside, all create a conducive environment. Boys and men internalise the violent nature and treat women, children and other genders as lesser persons of value,” says Varsha Bhargavi of Where are the Women Collective, Hyderabad. The Unnao police officer-in-charge had refused to accept the burned rape victim’s complaint, which could have saved her life—he has been suspended; a small price to pay for his indifference. Says Vikram Singh, “Police stations behave like boys’ clubs. They have no sense of urgency to register such cases.” India also elects leaders who rape and murder and then receive birthday greetings from prominent colleagues—“May the world sing praises of your success,” Unnao MP Sakshi Maharaj tweeted in Sanskrit, the language of the gods as a birthday greeting to BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar, who is jailed for rape. In 2017, a woman from Unnao had accused Sengar of raping her teenage daughter after promising her a job. When the family filed a police complaint, the cops booked the girl’s father under the Arms Act. He died of torture in jail.
Last year, a young shepherd girl in Kathua was kidnapped, sedated, gang-raped after which, her head was smashed in with a stone and her battered body flung by the road. Investigators found that two local police officers accepted nearly `4 lakh as bribes to destroy evidence. Telangana Home Minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali partly blamed the 27-year-old Hyderabad veterinary surgeon for her terrible fate. “She was an educated woman, and yet she called her sister instead of 100. Had she called 100, she would have been saved.” But the police are not always friendly to rape victims. In Sindupur village, where the Unnao burn victim was from, cops told a woman, who tried to register attempted rape, to file her complaint only after the rape happened. “Rape toh hua nahi, jab hoga tab dekhenge (Rape has not happened, we will see when it happens).” Early this year, a 23-year-old law student in Shahjahanpur, who accused three-time BJP MP and former Union minister Chinmayanand of raping her for over a year, was thrown in jail along with the politician. Asks retired justice Ravindra Singh Yadav of Allahabad High Court, “Even if the girl made an extortion call to Chinmayanand, does implicating the girl only for her conversation with the alleged extortion-accused prove her complicity?”
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Complicity unites everyone in the name of morality. Some surveys noted that most Indians, including women, had fixed ideas about ‘inappropriate’ clothing for young women in public. Skirts were considered unsuitable by around 88 per cent, and pants got 78 per cent of the negative vote. A huge majority, 94 per cent, said that only a sari or a salwar-kameez was acceptable. The inference is that ‘immodest’ attire invites shame. The NITI Aayog records that 42 per cent of men in UP justify beating their wives for ‘disrespecting’ her in-laws or over suspected infidelity. The Lok Foundation survey reports that many Indian men believe women provoke or deserve rape. In 2016, there were 106 recorded rapes a day. A whopping 1,33,000 rape cases are pending in courts. Some police officers have over 600 unsolved rape cases on their files. Two Sundays ago, at Samta Sthal, the site of the protest by Swati Maliwal, chair of the Delhi Commission for Women, hundreds of girls and women joined her demand for gender justice. One of them, Leena, who was raped as a child told a reporter, “I was six years old when I was raped and I could never speak about it. This is India’s worst disease.” Says a senior IPS officer in Lucknow, “It takes a single incident like the Unnao rape case to undermine the law’s credibility. When both high moral ground and credibility are lost, criminals lose the fear of law.”
Indian political leaders who are meant to enact laws to protect women have opinions about rape that would shock a Victorian priest. Former chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, Barkha Shukla Singh, wanted a condom advertisement featuring former porn star Sunny Leone banned because of the “shabby, ugly or immoral way the actress seduces or sexually provokes a man to use condoms”. According to a 2016 report by the National Family Health Survey-4, 94.4 per cent sexually active men hate condoms. Chhattisgarh mantri Ramsewak Paikra dismissed rape as an accident. Another politician in Haryana said that 90 per cent of rapes are consensual. The respected RSS boss Mohan Bhagwat has denied that gangrape or sex crimes happen in villages and forests. A woman in an UP village was raped by her brothers-in-law on her wedding day as punishment for her brother’s elopement; a village elder told a reporter: “An eye for eye is the actual justice.”
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Elders in a West Bengal village reportedly ordered the gangrape of a 20-year-old woman for ‘falling in love’ with a man from another community. In July 2014, village elders ordered the gangrape of a 14-year-old girl in a Jharkhand village whose brother was accused of raping a married woman: villagers watched wordlessly as the woman’s husband dragged the girl away to a nearby forest. Psychiatrist and director of Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, Gurugram, Dr Samir Parikh points at the damage the ‘bystander rapist’ can do. He says, “Many times, when someone teases or assaults a girl or a woman in a crowded bus or metro, at least half a dozen people are present. The fact that no one raises a voice encourages the perpetrator. The silent numbers make perpetrators feel more powerful.” A TV channel reported the sale of ‘rape videos’ costing between `20 and `200 to cellphone users in Meerut, UP, which are marketed in nearby villages and circulated on WhatsApp. The reporter quoted a man in Saharanpur village saying he watched them for ‘peace of mind’. Rapists capture the act not just for later viewing pleasure but also to deter victims from approaching the police. Haryana’s senior politician Om Prakash Chautala insisted that girls should be married off at 16, so that their husbands can sexually satisfy them.
Centuries-old caste fault lines run deep across all sections of Indian society, deepest in the rural hinterland—the lower a person is in the caste system, the poorer they are. In Rampur, two men were booked for raping a Dalit woman at gunpoint when she was fetching fodder. In August 2015, a Baghpat Khap Panchayat ordered the gangrape of two Dalit sisters, who were afterwards paraded naked as ‘punishment’ for their brother’s elopement with a married upper-caste woman. Instead of punishing the perpetrators, the brother and sisters were arrested and sent to Meerut Jail. Dalit men like Pranay—who was hacked to death by killers hired by his upper-caste wife’s father while returning after her pregnancy medical check-up—are victims of a distorted social prejudice that infests the Indian mind. Says former joint commissioner of Delhi Police, Maxwell Pereira, “We do have stringent laws in place, but unfortunately these laws egg perpetrators to kill the victim so that there is no witness to the deed and they have a better chance of getting away with it.”
Historically, literature sources show the declining status of Indian women since Vedic times. A paper named ‘Chronicle of Sexuality in the Indian Subcontinent’ by academics and psychologists Keya Das and TS Sathyanarayana Rao that recently appeared in the respected Journal of Psychosexual Health notes that a woman’s status gradually diminished in the post-Vedic age, followed by complete subjugation and degradation in Medieval India after which the women of pre-Independence era were isolated by the purdah system and victimised by Sati, dowry and child marriage. Present Indian male attitudes to women are blamed on the Victorian colonial morality imposed after the 1857 Revolt. During the British Raj, the punishment for rape under the Offences Against the Person Act was “Death as a Felon”, though records show that rapists were hardly ever convicted. If he was a soldier, the administration usually ignored the victim’s accusation.
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Authors like Nancy L Paxton (Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race, and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1830-1947) believes sparse documentation indicates that rape complaints were suppressed; American history professor Elizabeth Kolsky noted that of 75 rape convictions sent up from lower courts to all the High Courts for review between 1904 and 1947, only 37 per cent were confirmed. It’s not just in the tribal badlands of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East that honour killing is a way of life though American professor, feminist psychologist and author Phyllis Chesler noted that Western media gives more coverage to Hindu honour killings in India while under-reporting Muslim murders. In July, 19-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi was burned to death for reporting sexual harassment by her madarasa teacher near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“The only deterrent can be certainty of punishment and not stringency of punishment. In order to ensure this we need a system of effective police investigation as well as a trial that is fair to both victim and the accused. Most importantly, we must stop looking for short-cuts like death penalty, which actually benefit only the police, state and politicians by allowing them to project that action is being taken, when in fact the underlying causes of sexual violence as well as institutional, systemic gaps in investigation, trial etc are left unresolved,” says Vrinda Grover, Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist. A survey of judicial attitudes by female gender rights NGO, Sakshi, found that 68 per cent of the judges surveyed felt that “provocative attire was an invitation to rape” and 55 per cent felt that the “moral character of the victim” was relevant. The ownership of a woman’s body lies exclusively with men, according to the survey. A large section—60.6 per cent of the respondents—upheld the husband’s right “to discipline his wife”, and 20 per cent of them confessed to have raised a hand against their wives. Sometime in the 1600s, England’s Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale defended marital rape because: “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given herself in kind unto the husband, whom she cannot retract.” Though the British judiciary dismissed the judgment centuries later, a similar 158-year-old law of colonial jurisprudence is being followed by the Indian system.
Though the number of marital rape victims is 40 times higher than the number of women attacked by unknown men, it is legal in India. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, states: “Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” The Sakshi survey showed that a decade ago 74 per cent of the judges wanted women to choose the ‘preservation of the family’ even if she was subject to domestic violence while 51 per cent believed that women who stay with abusive husbands are ‘partly to blame’ for their predicament. A 2013 report by MPs in Parliament had noted that if “marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress”.
The Hyderabad rapists were shot dead by the police at dawn in the fields where they had assaulted, raped and burned the young vet. Civil rights activists are up in arms calling it an encounter, protesting against violation of their human rights. Even the Chief Justice said that revenge cannot be a substitute for justice. However, justice more often than not drags its feet. Nirbhaya’s parents are waiting for the sentence to be carried out for over six years. “There is constant pressure on a man to be macho. This false machismo, bravado and self-aggrandisement manifest themselves in superficial superiority. We teach our men only two emotions—anger and violence. So they put out all their insecurities and emotions in the form of violence. Sexual violence is the highest form of violation of women and hence a way to subjugate her and tame her,” says Dr Purnima Nagaraja, consultant mental health professional, Dhrithi Wellness clinic, Hyderabad. Legal rulings vary, reflecting both patriarchal and liberal values; judgments have called “chastity” and “virginity” the “most valued possession of a woman” and also that rape is a crime worse than murder because “a murderer destroys the physical body of his victim (but) a rapist degrades the very soul of the helpless female (The State of Punjab v. Gurmit Singh and Others, 2 S.C.C. 384 (Supreme Court of India, 1996)”. The war over the Indian woman’s body after failing to capture her heart is destroying her soul.